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Babalwa Latsha: 'I know that every time I step on the field I have eyes on me.'

By Daniel Gallan
Babalwa Latsha of South Africa runs the ball during the Pool C Rugby World Cup 2021 New Zealand match between South Africa and France at Eden Park on October 08, 2022, in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

It’s a cold, grey morning in London and two South Africans are talking about the weather.

“I’m not used to it yet,” says Babalwa Latsha, her voice shifting from its usually upbeat tone as if to match the late winter cold snap around her.

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“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’ve been here almost five years and I haven’t fully acclimatised yet. I’m not sure you ever do.”

Any expat will recognise this ubiquitous topic of conversation. But that is the only well worn path we travel over the course of an hour together because Latsha is unlike any other South African rugby player in England.

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When she signed with Harlequins four weeks ago, the 28-year-old prop with 20 Springboks caps became the 44th player from her country representing a top flight English club this season. She is not the only South African woman earning a living here. Catha Jacobs, the second-rower with nine Test appearances, is the other and plays for cross-town rivals Saracens. But Latsha is different on one important metric.

“I’m a proud black woman,” she says, pointing out that she is the only representative of the country’s 80% majority demographic in both the Premiership and Premier 15s. “That means something to me. I’m representing many people and many things. I’m representing women. I’m representing women rugby players. I’m representing South Africa. But I’m also representing black women.

“I’m proud of my identity and I know that every time I step on the field I have eyes on me. I have a responsibility to carry. This isn’t about me. My work doesn’t stay on the field. Everything I do, I do with the knowledge that I am holding something important in my hands.”

The message espoused by Latsha, one that marries athletic accomplishments with a deep sense of social duty, has been delivered by South African rugby players before. Ever since Nelson Mandela tethered his nation building project to the fate of the Springboks in the early years of democracy, the sport in the country has carried great cultural significance.

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Siya Kolisi’s story, one that began in poverty and could end with two World Cup titles as captain, is held up as a totem to what is possible when the country’s corrupt politicians and greedy capitalists stand aside and allow true heroes to lead by example.

But this extra baggage can be heavy for some athletes who might struggle under the weight of expectation. Latsha doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s not a burden,” she says, her voice rising and emphasising each syllable as she chooses her words with great care. “I’ve matured into it. I’ve learned to embrace it. Initially [when she became the first women’s rugby player from Africa to earn a professional contract, signing with Spanish club SD Eibar Femenino in 2020] it was a lot.

“I would put so much pressure on myself. No one else did, it was all me. It would sometimes become a bit much. But over the years I’ve grown to accept the leadership position that I’ve got. It aligns with my passions which is to represent South African women’s rugby to the best of my ability.

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“Young girls in South Africa now have a positive point of reference. Girls who look like me. We can’t afford to shy away from such things.

“In tough times I remind myself of why I do what I do. I remind myself of the struggles I’ve been through and the struggles that many people back home still go through. When I’m on my own that grounds me and gives me a springboard. I tell myself, ‘Remember why you’re here. Remember where you come from.’”

Latsha comes from Khayelitsha, an underdeveloped urban sprawl built during apartheid for the purpose of housing the black work force that would serve white people in Cape Town. Last year, Latsha told the BBC that “it’s not the best place you’d want to grow up in”. Two thirds of residents live in tin shacks. One in three people must walk 200m or more to access running water. Half the adult population are unemployed and violent crime is rife.

But that is just one strand to Latsha’s story. She credits her foundational years for instilling in her a strong sense of purpose and a survivor’s mentality. Other famous residents include the LGBTQI+ campaigner Funeka Soldaat and the climate activist Yola Mgogwana. Latsha chooses to see herself in this mould.

She is on the board of the MENstruation Foundation, a non-governmental organisation that seeks to end period poverty in South Africa. The foundation has created vending machines that deposit, for free and without the need for electricity, sanitary pads and menstrual caps to girls in need. A study last year found that one in 10 girls in South Africa miss up to 20% of the school year during their period. Latsha hopes to reduce that number to zero.

It’s important work but she’d prefer not to do it. Not because she views it as a distraction but because she’d rather there was no need for it. She says she is conscious of her ambassadorial role she plays and wishes to portray her country in a positive light, but is she candid on the continuing struggles that her homeland faces almost 30 years after the fall of apartheid?

“Of course, you can’t shy away from that,” she says. “I speak openly with my [Harlequins] teammates about the side of South Africa that they maybe don’t know about. I tell them that they won’t see my home town on a brochure. It’s important we’re honest about the challenges. Those stories are my stories. I’ve lived that life.”

In 2021, Latsha, the broadcaster Elma Smit, and a camera crew were held up at gunpoint as thieves made off with expensive recording gear and all their valuables. No one was hurt, and Latsha is able to shrug off the experience with a laugh, but it was a horrifying moment that she says has stayed with her to this day.

Our conversation moves to rugby matters and Latsha is buoyant again. After all, Harlequins, the Premier 15s champions two seasons back, aren’t in the business of signing players for their narrative. She’s been hired to do a job in a pack that includes England internationals Amy Cokayne, Bryony Cleall and Rosie Galligan.

“It’s vindicating being in a team that is filled with so many good players,” Latsha explains. “Women’s rugby in South Africa is of course not as developed as it is in England but I’m among peers here. I don’t see myself as inferior in any way. And me being here is proof that despite the obstacles that we’ve had to overcome in South Africa, we can still produce players who can play at this level.

“That’s what I mean when I say this isn’t only about me. Everything I learn here I’ll take back to South Africa. I want to help raise the standard any way I can.”

It was apparent at last year’s World Cup that the Springboks’ women’s team is a long way behind their male counterparts. While the side led by Kolisi is among the world’s best, Latsha’s and her teammates are ranked 13th on World Rugby’s chart. They lost all three of their matches in New Zealand starting with a 40-5 pasting at the hands of the French before going down at the death to a spirited Fijian outfit that snatched a 21-17 win against visibly tiring opponents.

Then, in their final game, they were swatted aside 75-0 by England in the most one-sided fixture of the tournament. Despite the gargantuan deficit, when the final whistle sounded the South Africans started to celebrate. If you’d only just flicked on the TV you’d be hard pressed to know which team had romped to the quarterfinals and which had suffered a humiliating trouncing.

“We had a lot to be happy about,” Latsha says when asked about the seemingly incongruous scenes in Auckland. “We had missed the previous World Cup because we couldn’t field a team. We had all been through a very difficult year and to even get there, to take part in what is the best tournament in our sport, that was special.

“Our role at the World Cup was to inspire the next generation. We had to show that we were present, that we were there being ourselves. We had so many little wins that we were celebrating. Others might have only looked at the scoreboards and said we only lost. We chose to express ourselves as South Africans and celebrate the journey.”

Latsha’s journey is certainly worth celebrating. Earlier this month she was part of a record breaking game at Twickenham that saw over 15,000 fans attend the Big Game between Harlequins and Exeter Chiefs.

“If you told me five years ago that I’d be part of such an event, playing in such an arena, I wouldn’t have believed you,” she says. “It shows how much women’s rugby has grown. It shows what’s possible. England is further along than us in South Africa, but we’re catching up. I’m a testament to that.”

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J
Jon 26 minutes ago
How Maro Itoje terrorised the All Blacks lineout

Yeah England were much smarter, they put their much vaster experience to use in both the scrum (bending/not taking hit) and lineout (Itoje early sacks) law vagaries. Really though, I know what is there, I’m more worried about Englands locks. We only got to see Itoje and Martin, right? Depth allround in the England camp was probably the difference in the series and the drop off when Itoje reached his minutes limit for the season (it was like the plug was pulled from the charger) was up there with keeping Sexton on the park in that quarter final. What happened there? You have a lot of watching hours experience with locks come blindsides Nick, especially with a typical Australian player make up, have you see a six the size of Barrett absolutely dominate the position and his opposition? I can easily see Scott, and even Martin for that matter, moving to the blindside and playing like Tadgh Beirne with the amount of top locks we have coming through to partner Patrick. Still with the English mindset, because despite running the best All Black team I’ve seen in a long time close, they do need to find improvement, and although I thought they had a lot of good performances from their 7’s (over the years), I really like the prospect of Cunningham-South in his 8 spot and Earl on the open. Can you see Martin as mobile enough to take over Lawes? I absolutely loved his aggression when Jordie ran upto him to try and grab the ball. That alone is enough reason for me to try him there.

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